The four primal Hawaiian gods wore several faces, but none more disparate than Ku, who was the god of prosperity, as well as the much-feared and terrible god of war and sorcery. He was also god of the deep forest, of the mountain, of dry and wet farming and the god of fishing. He also ruled the red flowering ohia lehua tree and his images were carved from that wood.
Many carved images of Ku portray him with huge bulging eyes and a protruding tongue. He was also the god Kukailimoku, meaning “snatcher of the islands”, that Kamehameha prayed to as he set out to unite the islands. The legend has it that Kamehameha was commanded by the god to build a luakini heiau on the Big Island for him to guarantee him success in war. Kamehameha invited his cousin and chief rival and when the latter ended on the shore, he and his warriors were attacked and killed, and Kamehameha’s cousin became the first sacrifice to the terrifying god.
After the kapu system was abolished, the keeper of Kaili (abbreviation for Kukailimoku) set the akua adrift in a canoe with food, tapa cloth, and awa, the alcoholic drink made from taro, so that it would make its way make to Kahiki, where the gods came from.
It was said that akua or image of the god was a roughly carved, small wooden figure with a headdress made of yellow feathers. When the god was consulted, the feathers would stand erect or fly to the person favored to win in war. If the god remained passive, the omen was unfavorable and the battle would be either postponed or altogether abandoned if the negative omen was subsequently repeated. It was said that Kaili had a voice which would be heard above the din of battle.
The Many Faces and Names of Ku
Here is a list of the various personalities of Ku and their domains in Hawaiian mythology:
Kuolonowao – high forest
Kuholoholopali - sliding down steep slopes
Kupulupulu - undergrowth
Kukaohialaka - ohia-lehua tree
Kukaieie - pandanus vine
Kumauna - mountain
Kupaaike‘e -hollowing the canoe
Kuka-o-o - digging stick
Kukulia - dry farming
Kukeolowalu - wet farming
Fishermen would worship Kuula or Kuulakai for the blessings of an abundant catch.
As god of war, in addition to Kukailimoku, he was also known as:
Kunui-akea - the supreme one
Kukeoloewa - the supporter
Kuho‘one‘enu‘u - pulling the earth together
The Terrifying God
As the much feared god of sorcery whose priests practiced ana’ana, the ritual of praying someone to death, Ku was known as Kuwahailo or “Ku of the maggot mouth”. This was the sorcery of vengeance and was used under the most dire circumstances. It was a dangerous practice that was passed from generation to generation and the priests ran the risk of the prayers being reversed and targeted at the source.
Only the most rigorous and strict order of priests observed Ku rituals. Those rites demanding human sacrifice were carried to avert a calamity which threatened everyone such as a drought or an impending battle. A sacrificial temple would be built, elaborate ceremonies lasting for ten days or longer which alternated between periods of silence and periods of prayers to bind the god to the physical plane, needed to be carried out with great precision or run the risk of death.
The Benevolent Face
The Ku gods of the high forests and plants and trees were not only for the chiefs but also for those who worked in the forests or went in to gather food when needed. The Ku of the mountain and Ku of the ohia lehua tree were also considered as local rain gods and rain heiau were built in for them.
The rain god, Kumanuna or Ku of the mountain was represented by a big boulder of lava in the Kau district of the Big Island. He was sought by sick people, who would be left overnight in a nearby cave. Worshippers praying for rain would strike a fish against the rock to call his attention or a rare plant with mottled leaves would be used as a substitute. However, all rites were conducted with the greatest reverence and quiet, lest the god reply with a violent thunderstorm.
To the canoe builders, there was a primary or chief Ku – Kumokuhali’i, and the Ku of the adze which ate the unwanted wood. Kuholoholopali was the deity who balanced or steadied the canoe when as the men carried it down steep slopes. There was also a Kakuoalakai who ruled over the knots by which the ropes were lashed to the canoe.
Ku had also had a celebratory aspect. Kupulupulu, deemed to be the ancestor of the Menehune or Hawaiian elves, was also considered the male version of Laka, the goddess of dance. In this manifestation, he was Kukaohialaka, god of the hula dance, and a branch of red lehua blossoms is placed on the altar in every hula hall in his tribute.
Ku Worshipers Today
On a famous surfing beach in Maui, there is a stone Makakiloia called the “eyes of the fish watchman”. It is here that fishermen will look out to sea to watch for signs of the akule or big eye scad in the bay. Fishermen hauled in as much as 28,000 fish only a few years ago using an age-old fishing technique. To this day, they still offer fish from the first catch to the god.
Ku was forbidding, blood-thirsty, yet a generous and benevolent god. His dominant role in Hawaiian mythology underlines the polarity built into the Hawaiian religion, that things were either evil or good. It was only by living in aloha aina or love of the land that the gods granted peace, prosperity, good health and abundance.